What if you were an anti-slavery tomboy in the United States, in the years leading up to the Civil War, and lived in a pro-slavery state? Things would get pretty hairy pretty quickly and that’s just what happens in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Lydia Newton is married off to Thomas Newton and sets off for Kansas, where slavery is condoned and defended with deadly force. Lidie discovers that the innocuous-sounding “goose question” is a hidden allusion to the question of slavery to decide which side of the fence someone lies on. The new life in the expanded territories is good, despite all the pioneer hardships and dearth of creature comforts. Eventually, the Newtons run afoul of their pro-slavery neighbours and things go awry, with her husband being murdered. Lidie resolves to dress as a man and avenge the death of her husband.
The book examines a pivotal point in American history, marked by immense violence and ideological divides, based on very fundamentally different views of human beings. Jane Smiley does a good job of conveying the sense of abhorrence someone would feel after moving to the South from New England before the Civil War. While not as condescending as one might expect her to be, Smiley’s protagonist has that one trait most slavers lack, compassion. This sets her apart from her Southern brethren who are determined to perpetuate the institution of slavery at all costs, even if it means tearing the nation asunder. All in all, a very revealing and interesting book, one you’ll enjoy as a precursor to the feminist movement that oversaw the emancipation of women to a greater degree.